Why Heathrow 13 verdict could lead to more radical climate activism, not less

by Graeme Hayes and Brian Doherty.

***First published on The Conversation.

The so-called “Heathrow 13” Plane Stupid climate activists have been given suspended prison sentences for trespassing on the airport’s runway. The case – and the decision of the judge to hand down custodial sentences at all, even if they were suspended – illustrates the way judicial attitudes to unlawful climate activism have seesawed over the years, and the harsh treatment meted out to the activists may yet backfire.

In 2008, six Greenpeace activists who had admitted causing criminal damage at Kingsnorth power plant were found not guilty by a jury, following a week of expert testimony on coal and climate change. It seemed a significant moment for the UK climate movement. Their “lawful excuse” defence justified their actions to fight global warming, and appeared to offer campaigners a way to make governments take both notice and action.

But subsequent acts of mass disobedience faltered: in April 2009, 114 activists planning to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station were pre-emptively arrested in a case which ultimately brought to light the extent of police infiltration of the environmental protest movement.

Do you have your boarding pass ready, sir?Plane Stupid / PA

Later that year 29 activists were found guilty of “obstructing the railway” by a jury in Leeds after the judge refused to allow them to present a necessity defence and call expert witnesses to justify their “hijacking” of a coal train at Drax power station. And in June 2010, nine Plane Stupid activists were found guilty by a jury and fined for breach of the peace after they had broken into Aberdeen airport and played golf on the runway, dressed as Donald Trump. Taking non-violent direct action in order to “put climate change on trial” seemed at a dead end.

The trial of the Heathrow 13 may have changed all that. In fact, the activists probably owe a vote of thanks to district judge Deborah Wright. History tells us that social movements not only mobilise when conditions are favourable; they also mobilise in response to threat, especially where that threat is widely seen as an injustice.

The court’s guilty verdict was to be expected, but the judge’s threat to impose the maximum sentence of three months imprisonment succeeded in producing a wave of sympathetic media coverage, internet petitions and an impressive and sustained show of solidarity from 300 or so supporters outside the court. Criminal trials are social theatre: Wright’s promise of a punitive sentence turned this one into a political event.

Protesters hold up a train taking coal to the giant Drax power station. John Giles / PA

In so doing, the trial reminds us that the courts, especially the criminal courts, are a site of battles over legal and political legitimacy. Trials like that of the Heathrow 13 are, in the strict sense, about the causes that motivate action, the weighing of harms and the acceptability of specific conducts – but they are also about the scope that democratic societies afford for small groups of citizens to challenge what they perceive to be injustice in the name of the collective good.

What next for the climate movement?

Though the Heathrow 13 were spared jail time, a suspended prison sentence for a non-violent minor crime, committed by (largely) first-time offenders, arguably remains extraordinary and excessive. In 2006, sitting in a High Court appeals case of anti-war activists who had committed aggravated trespass and criminal damage at RAF Fairford on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Lord Justice Hoffmann formalised a basic bargain: where activists act in a publicly accountable way – with restraint, sincerity, and a sense of proportion – then police, prosecutors, and magistrates should show sensitivity and equal restraint, taking the conscientious motives of protesters into account.

Activists are aware of the bargain: the Heathrow defendants certainly were, and it is a staple of advice for would-be environmental disobedients.

But this sentence throws the bargain into confusion. By acting with less restraint – and causing more damage – activists can potentially secure a jury trial. Though the potential penalties are more severe, this move typically works in favour of the activists as juries, in general, are less likely than magistrates to convict in these sorts of cases (despite the Leeds and Aberdeen verdicts).

But if magistrates are now imposing jail time, actual or suspended, for minor offences, then acting with restraint starts to appear less attractive. If you’re going to be dealt with harshly for aggravated trespass, you may as well cause criminal damage too, because that might get you a more favourable trial.

This year will see a concerted wave of climate disobedience across Europe, as activists react, post-Paris, both to the lack of a concrete action plan by Western governments and to the apparent necessity of citizen action in order to force governments do anything meaningful at all. In the UK, we should expect more climate disobedience, not less: the Heathrow 13 trial raises the stakes.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*

Drill, Bro, Drill? Considering the Drive for Mineral Extraction in New Zealand

The issue of mineral (oil, gas, coal and gold) extraction has become a high-profile issue in New Zealand since the election of a centre-right National-led government in 2008. The drive of the government to mine in the protected national park estate led to one of the country’s largest protest marches in 2010 when 50,000 marched through the centre of Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city). The following year, attempts by Petrobras to explore for oil offshore led to protests on land and at sea in the form of a protest flotilla aimed to disrupt prospecting. Although the government backed down on plans to allow mining on conservation land and Petrobras ended its survey after a couple of months, this was a temporary victory for those opposed to extraction. The re-election of National-led governments in 2011 and 2014 with strengthened mandates, partially due to a collapse of the centre-left Labour Party, meant that mineral exploration has remained firmly on the agenda. To support its policy agenda, the National government has reduced the size of the public sector and restructured key parts of the institutional architecture. Particularly telling in this regard was the April 2012 creation of the Ministry for Primary Industries from what were the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Fisheries and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority. When considered alongside the relatively weak Department of Conservation and Ministry for the Environment, the prioritisation of economic development through primary production and extraction (catching up with Australia) is clear.


Sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 - John Key was Prime Minister and Petrobras was surveying for oil and gas offshore [Source: Author]

Sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 – John Key was Prime Minister and Petrobras was surveying for oil and gas offshore [Source: Author]

Greenpeace sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 [Source: Author]

Greenpeace sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 [Source: Author]

In the face of this drive there has been mobilisation of environmental opposition from a range of different actors. Large national organisations, such as Greenpeace and ‘Forest and Bird’ (officially the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society) have played important roles in generating campaigns, supported by smaller, more locally focused groups. The figure below shows the number of protest events targeting mineral exploration and extraction over the 1997-2014 period (see O’Brien, 2015 for fuller discussion). It is clear that the policy direction of the National-led government from late 2008 provided a spur for opposition. The extensive nature of the drive for extraction has led to coalitions bringing together environmental movement actors, concerned locals and even farmers (a traditional National Party support base) demonstrating the breadth of concern and those potentially affected. This upsurge in opposition activity has not however dampened the desire of the National government to pursue mineral extraction. Instead it has pushed ahead, opening substantial new areas for oil and gas exploration in a range of different locations around the country to large international firms such as Anadarko, StatOil and TAG Oil. It has also begun to explore the possibility of fracking, something which has generated strong opposition. The ability of the environmental movement to challenge these moves has been restricted, with the government amending the law in 2014 to restrict the ability of protest flotillas to operate within 500 metres of offshore prospecting operations.


[Source: Author – see O’Brien, 2015 for details on coding]


The current situation in New Zealand reflects the challenges facing environmental movements more broadly. They are able to mobilise reasonable levels of support and generate attention around the risk of environmental damage, but in the face of a determined government their impact remains limited. In the absence of strong political allies and where the government can rely on apparently non-political, technical justifications for its decisions opposition will remain marginal. One possible area where opposition can have an impact is in the area of public support, with the sustained campaign beginning to reduce the level of support for mining among the wider public. The importance to the New Zealanders of seeing their country as clean, green and ‘100% Pure’ may yet enhance the impact of the environmental movement, especially as exploration turns to extraction and the associated risks and impacts become apparent.


Thomas O’Brien, Cranfield University

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*